By David Murray
From the Financial Times - March 1 2006 18:29
That keen, energetic Hungarian conductor/composer Peter Eötvös took the London Sinfonietta in hand on Saturday, offering a programme that began with the late Olivier Messiaen (d. 1992) and went on with Pedro Amaral (b. 1972, new to most of us), before arriving at large slabs of Eötvös himself.
It is always an interesting question when the Sinfonietta brings on a conductor/composer: was it because he is a terrific conductor whose own music needs to be indulged, or because he is a seriously interesting composer, who may be duff with a baton, but needs flattering by an invitation to wave his arms about? Oliver Knussen springs instantly to mind as an oustanding exception. He is a fine composer by whom all other composers would love to have their premieres conducted, with his unfailing sympathy and searching precision. But it is no secret that, for just that reason, Ollie-the-composer owes us much more music than he ever finds time to write.
Eötvös chose Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, one of his ornithological pieces, rather than a “sacred” one. There is a story about a student coming to Messiaen for lessons, and being told to get a mackintosh and go into the woods to listen to the birds: “Theirs is the real music!” Here Paul Crossley was the solo pianist, his roulades and arabesques crisply shaped, cleanly supported by a few Sinfonietta players. The Amaral, a world premiere, proved to be an affable middlebrow piece with a dominating solo trumpet (Marco Blaauw) amplified by the piano, perfectly user-friendly. Eötvös’s own Snatches of a Conversation featured not only another trumpet – double-belled to permit quick changes from one peculiar mute to another – but a speaker, Omar Ebrahim, whispering hoarsely into a microphone. I felt transported back to the avant-garderie of the 1960s, in which Ebrahim often used to figure.
Much stronger and more striking was Eötvös’s Triangel, in which David Hockings got to play any number of percussion instruments besides the titular triangle, including gongs, timpani and steel drums.
Different sub-groups of the orchestra took their turns, listening and reacting; the composer presided over the ten movements with close attention, and achieved a lucid, persuasive performance. This seductive and richly colourful work deserves to be lodged in the Sinfonietta’s repertoire for a good long while. When Eötvös isn’t available, Knussen could conduct it just as well.